On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game BBDO, the agency that's handled General Electric's account for 80 years, is an ad-industry legend. But new technologies threaten to make its favored methods obsolete.
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On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game

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On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game

On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game

On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10061997/10063611" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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First in a four-part series.

David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America, has been shaking up the venerable ad agency. Courtesy BBDO hide caption

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Courtesy BBDO

David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America, has been shaking up the venerable ad agency.

Courtesy BBDO

'The New Ad Age'

This four-part All Things Considered series, airing Tuesdays in May, looks at how digital media and the demise of the mass market are changing the advertising industry. Next: NPR's Kim Masters on audience fragmentation and how advertisers are competing for eyeballs.

Commerce as Art?

Movie poster for Cubicle Courtesy BBDO hide caption

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Courtesy BBDO

Movie poster for Cubicle

Courtesy BBDO

BBDO's One Second Theater campaign for GE had a longer-form complement — a short-film series called GE's Imagination Theater.

Both "theater" campaigns hark back to the 1950s, when GE sponsored General Electric Theater, a Sunday-evening TV program hosted by Ronald Reagan that showcased Broadway and Hollywood stars in a mix of comedies, dramas, romances and more. Judy Hu, GE's global advertising and branding director, asked BBDO — the same agency that managed the '50s General Electric Theater project — to update the idea for today's world.

Imagination Theater, a mix of live-action and animated shorts, aims to "demonstrate the power of the human imagination at work." (The last three words, as it happens, are GE's current advertising tag line.)

BBDO and GE promoted the films with teaser ads and movie posters, then "premiered" them on digital cable. You can watch all three shorts below.

(Requires RealPlayer)

'Re:think the Agency'

Wondering what challenges advertising agencies are confronting? Read or listen to Chapter 10 of Joseph Jaffe's book Beyond the 30-Second Spot.

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With media technology changing at breakneck speed, the advertising industry is trying to figure out how to keep up. For years, its bread and butter has been the 30-second television commercial — but these days, as any multitasking teenager can tell you, a 30-second spot is hardly hip.

So many ads try to take you somewhere else, or involve you interactively. One recent ad for M&M candies, for example, suggests that "There's an M&M in everyone," and invites viewers to visit BecomeAnMM.com to discover their inner candy-coated chocolateness.

That M&M commercial was created by BBDO, a venerable Madison Avenue shop that's been an ad-industry byword for nearly 80 years — and that's working to change with the times.

BBDO's history goes back to 1928, when George Batten merged his company with Barton, Durstine and Osborne. The firm became famous not only for its advertising, but for its name, an alliterative mouthful that comedians couldn't resist. Jack Benny, for instance, made a ripsnorter of a routine out of a directory-assistance request and an operator who couldn't quite keep the spelling straight.

That was in the 1940s, when the agency handled the advertising for Benny's radio show. By the '60s, TV had overtaken radio, and the agency, now called BBDO, came to master that medium. Bill Bruce, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO New York, says he joined the agency some 20 years ago for one reason.

"It was TV," he says. "TV, TV, TV. And at the time, it was working with 'A' filmmakers, 'A' celebrities, doing big productions." Remember those Pepsi commercials starring Michael Jackson and Michael J. Fox? BBDO created them. "It was the place to go," Bruce says.

That was the BBDO tradition. Now, that's history.

"The words I have proscribed from our lexicon are traditional, classical, mainstream," says Andre Robertson, CEO of BBDO Worldwide. The agency he heads has grown into a genuinely global advertising powerhouse, with 290 offices in more than 70 countries.

"These are words that are completely inappropriate for anyone in the business of creating work or content that we want people to access," Robertson says. "So we don't use those words. The last thing in the world I like to be described as is traditional."

BBDO is still the kind of agency that produces great TV commercials. And the 30-second spot can, of course, still deliver a mass audience to advertisers. But Robertson is well aware that advertising has to stay ahead of the trends in technology. So a couple of years ago, Robertson hired David Lubars as the new chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America. Lubars is an advertising star known for his creative approach to new media.

"There is risk and intuition and gut involved in this business," Lubars says. "You can't fight it. Everybody wants to test everything — but the thing is, you're talking about creativity and what will move someone. You've gotta have guts."

A few years back, Lubars was working at the Minneapolis-based Fallon agency when he came up with a concept that sounded like it might have promise: Hire major directors, like Ang Lee and Ridley Scott, to make short movies featuring a client's product, then show the films on the Web. Eight short films, one Cannes Film Festival premiere, and more than 100 million viewers later, BMW Films was an advertising-industry earthquake — a marketing triumph and an artistic success that's currently enjoying a second life on YouTube.

The films illustrate Lubars' approach to advertising. These days, he says, consumers have endless media choices.

"So it is our job to create content that is so engaging ... that instead of us coming to you, and you have to take it, you come voluntarily," he says. "It is so great that you seek it out."

Both ad agencies and their clients have to buy into this new way of thinking, of course. Joseph Jaffe, a marketing consultant and author of Life After the 30-second Spot, says Lubars shocked the ad world when he got rid of some of BBDO's well-known creative directors — but he points out that Lubars was brought in to shake things up, and industries don't get reinvented without a little drama.

"One of his primary mandates in joining the agency was to inject new-age thinking, alternative, nontraditional thinking — and, frankly, diversify their portfolio away from the 30-second spot," Jaffe says. These days, people at BBDO like to say they're "media-agnostic." The buzzword is the integrated campaign: Print, digital, radio, TV all have an equal place at the table, Lubars says.

"There are so many different channels and mediums," he says. "The way to do it is to come up with a big upstream idea first, and then figure out where we are going to put it."

Lubars says even designers, who often were called on at the end of the creative process, are now in on a campaign at the start. Craig Duffney, BBDO's 30-year-old design director, worked on one such project for a TV network called G-4, which is aimed at 15- to 25-year-old guys. The network wanted a logo for a block of programming it was calling "Midnight Spank."

"First idea I went to was two monkeys holding fraternity paddles," Duffney remembers. "So we developed the iconography for it, and then they were like, 'We're going to present some TV, and we want to use the monkeys that you made for the logo, and we want them to do all this crazy stuff.'"

That was a case "where design led the TV idea," Lubars explains. "So it doesn't matter who leads; it's a matter of great brains sparking off each other."

The push to think differently isn't coming just from within the agency. It's also coming from the clients. One of BBDO's most innovative new campaigns was for General Electric. BBDO has been GE's advertising agency for 80 years, one of the longest-running relationships in advertising — which didn't stop GE executive Judy Hu from telling BBDO's Don Schneider that he'd better innovate, or else.

"I am constantly challenging the agency to come up with the next big thing," Hu says. "In fact, as soon as we were done with this, I said, 'OK, what are we doing next?'"

"This" was a campaign called GE One Second Theater, which Schneider, the agency's executive creative director, and his team developed while they were trying to figure out how to address the problem of viewers with TiVos and other digital video recorders, many of whom regularly fast-forward their way through commercials.

"We said, 'How about this: Let's not run from TiVo; let's embrace it,'" Schneider says. "Let's do what you can only do with a DVR, which is stop it."

Demonstrating how it works, Schneider shows what seems to be a standard TV commercial — except that toward the end, a series of words or symbols flashes by. It's an encoded message, designed to spark the sharp-eyed TiVoer's curiosity; the viewer has to stop the commercial to see what's there.

"When you go back with the DVR and step advance [one frame at a time], you see red curtains, you see the symbol GE," Schneider explains. "You press one more time, you see 'One Second Theater.'"

Viewers who were intrigued enough to hit the pause button, and who then clicked through to the associated Web site, spent an average of two-and-a-half minutes there — a number that made GE very happy. And that, says GE's Hu, is why agencies like BBDO must embrace the challenges presented by new media technologies, trying to stay ahead of the latest trends rather than waiting to see where they're headed.

"The biggest challenge is if you ignore it," she says. "If I were on the agency side, I would say the biggest challenge is that if you ignore [technological change], your client will find another agency who doesn't."